Strange but true
Updated: May 11
I visited the You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 - 1970 exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in November 2016 and came away very pleased that I made the excursion. Having arrived in the outer London suburb of Bexley in 1978 from what was then the parochial, cultural cul-de-sac of south Cumbria, I travelled up to central London almost every weekend and proceeded to take in as much art, music, theatre and as many museums as possible, but that visit in 2016 was the first time I’d been to the V&A. It was a conscious choice to avoid walking through those particular doors; a decision taken because of my bias towards the sciences and of ignorance in equal measure. After all, South Kensington boasted the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum and what I understood to comprise the V&A collection or their special exhibits never appealed. It seemed to me that it was all about fashion, past and present, and it would be hard to imagine anyone more unfashionable than me as I clung on to progressive rock music and the associated early 70s dress sense. I even branded it as imperialistic... Dressing like a dunce in a trench coat didn’t stop me attempting to broaden my horizons, seeking out things like minimalist sculpture Equivalent VIII, better known as the pile of bricks by Carl Andre at the Tate Gallery, or going to see Warren Mitchell in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre, though my more regular jaunts tended to be student concession seats at the Aldwych Theatre for Royal Shakespeare Company productions or the National Gallery where I could indulge in more mainstream culture without charge, but it was the galleries at the Natural History and Science Museums which most interested me, where I was delighted to discover links to my home town: a large plug of haematite in the former and a Bessemer Converter in the latter.
Equivalent VIII (Carl Andre, 1966)
How times change, because The V&A turned out to be a bit of a revelation. As far as I’m concerned the attractiveness of the venue increased under the directorship of Martin Roth so it’s a shame that he felt he had to return to his native Germany after reflecting on the decision by a tiny majority of the British voting public to leave the European Union. The building itself is quite stunning and whereas I’m not interested in all the decorative arts (things like the jewellery collection, for example) there are rooms devoted to architecture which are jaw-dropping. It would be impossible not to be impressed by the gallery containing the enormous plaster cast of Trajan’s column.
You Say You Want a Revolution? was a sociological snapshot of 1826 days described through music, performance, fashion, film, design and political activism, a truly revolutionary five years representing a seismic shift in attitudes. Some of these revolutions remain unfulfilled but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this short epoch had profound effects on our present and will affect the way in which we approach our future. It was the music and the politics which most interested me: the advent of psychedelia, forerunner to progressive rock; countercultural values including the birth of environmentalism and anti-war causes; and the sometimes forceful rise of equality movements; all issues which continue to define my thinking. What the exhibition also highlighted was that the rise of consumerism was responsible for the unfulfilled promises of the times, neatly summed up by the deeply ironic (though not meant so at the time) quotation by Milton Friedman “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color [sic] people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.”
A small proportion of the album covers spread around the exhibition reflected releases which make up the proto-prog of my own collection: Days of Future Passed; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; A Saucerful of Secrets; Ummagumma; Abraxas; Procol Harum; Shine on Brightly; John Barleycorn Must Die; The United States of America; Music in a Doll’s House; Stand Up; Hot Rats; Tommy; Trout Mask Replica; The Madcap Laughs; and Bitches Brew but the only true progressive rock album included in the display was In the Court of the Crimson King. Between the ages of 7 and 11 I was barely aware what was going on around the world although I do recall a household boycott on certain citrus fruit around that time, so it was more the accrual of those albums in the intervening years which allowed me to relate to the experience. One unexpected article on display was a sales manual for a Mellotron 400-D!
It was the Pink Floyd connection which first drew my attention to the exhibition though there’s more Floyd-related material in the exhibition book than actually on display. I also went to see the Doctor Strange film that same weekend which also has a Pink Floyd association. There’s a depiction of a ‘freak’ in one of the panels on the back cover of the late-1973 budget-price repackaging of the first two Floyd albums A Nice Pair, a man attired in hippy clothing holding a giant spliff and whereas most of the outer sleeve is a series of visual puns (a kettle of fish, a fork in the road, laughing all the way to the bank), I have never been able to grasp the significance of this photo, other than to challenge the stereotypical image of someone who listened to early Pink Floyd. Scattered on the floor depicted in that image is a pile of comics and one, quite clearly, is a Marvel Doctor Strange publication. A number of my school friends were into fantasy books and some of the more esoteric comics and I asked one to source a Doctor Strange for me. When I was much younger I used to buy DC comics on a Saturday morning from a newsagent near my grandmother’s house, but they were all staid compared to the dimensions inhabited by Dr Strange, a neurosurgeon who had lost the use of his hands and had become the master of mystic arts. The imagery of alternative dimensions fitted in with my adolescent world of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner and Arthur C Clarke and I was impressed that rather than being bestowed with a super power, Dr Strange’s ‘magic’ seemed to be derived from a more rational source, channelling the natural forces of the different universes. I was also developing an appreciation of mysticism, partly fuelled by Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans which was released at around the same time as A Nice Pair. The Doctor Strange character acquired counterculture acceptance, setting him apart from DC super-heroes and almost all other Marvel stable-mates as he wasn’t portrayed as some form of US patriot, something for which I had a particular distaste; one of the early gigs by Grateful Dead forerunners The Warlocks was at an event called Tribute to Dr Strange.
I enjoyed the film which contained just about the right level of humour, though the representation of a successful surgeon as arrogant is a rather tired trope. I’ve worked closely with surgeons and yes, some may be a little conceited or disdainful, but surgeons form a professional group interested in helping others and tend not to instigate global financial meltdowns or illegally invade other countries; there are plenty of politicians, healthcare managers, bankers, corporate executives and even some bloggers who demonstrate far more self-importance.
What was good about the movie was the deference to the comic book artwork in the depiction of alternate dimensions and Benedict Cumberbatch’s adoption of Dr Strange poses. There were scenes reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey placing it firmly in the psychedelic genre and best of all, director Scott Derrickson included a section of Interstellar Overdrive to accompany the clip leading up to Dr Strange’s life-changing accident.
Doctor Strange is available on streaming services and Blu-Ray; You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 ran from 10 September 2016 until 26 February 2017 at the Victoria and Albert Museum